Trevor Pumpkiss is a bastard. A murdering, child raping, bastard to be exact. He is also a superbly realised, complex and nuanced character, one of many that feature in this second novel-length outing for Thomas Usher. His continual use of the term ‘friend’ is genuinely creepy and on finishing a chapter featuring him you almost feel the need to put the book down and wash your hands.
The main plot of the book, the investigation into a serial killer with a predilection for trepanning young boys, coupled with the seeping into the real world of the sinister domain of The Pilgrim giving rise to some disturbing and evocative scenes, a visit to an abandoned warehouse in particular, that a lesser writer would perhaps fudge and fail to achieve the right tone. McMahon’s prose is always beautifully crafted even when detailing shocking and unpleasant scenes.
Although this is billed as ‘A Thomas Usher Novel’ his is only one thread of a three-part narrative. The other two main characters are the aforementioned Trevor Pumpkiss and PC Sarah Doherty, both of whom had small roles in Pretty Little Dead Things, the first Thomas Usher novel. The strongest storyline is that of Sarah, trying to piece together the history of her abusive father, and police force legend, Emerson Doherty, after discovering some disturbing pictures and audiotapes amongst his personal effects. Her thread forms the bulk of the storyline and its culmination strongly suggests she has an important role to play in future instalments.
The Thomas Usher chapters detail his exile in London, following the events of the first book, and his subsequent return to Leeds. These scenes have little bearing on the main plot of the novel but introduce characters that give the sense that seeds are being sown for future tales. Trevor’s thread is concerned with the emergence of the evil Pilgrim into Usher’s world and also sees him getting his well deserved comeuppance, although his ultimate fate is left tantalisingly unconfirmed.
Not everything works, the climax feels a little congested and would perhaps have benefitted from a little more of the word count and the reveal of Sarah’s partner’s role in events seemed a little obvious, but these are more niggles than problems. The story may be unremittingly bleak and darker than pitch but it is never less than gripping. Although not as fantastical and imaginative as his slightly superior release The Concrete Grove this still ranks as one of the strongest genre novels of the year.
Ignore the doom-mongers, Horror is alive and well in the UK with outstanding writers such as Conrad Williams, Adam Nevill and Joseph D’Lacey raising the bar ever higher with each new release but Gary McMahon surpasses them all with a body of work; shorts, novels and novellas, that feels both thematically and narratively interconnected and suggests – no demands – that we devour each new story.